Tahseen Shams is Assistant Professor of Sociology and the 2020-21 Bissell-Heyd Research Fellow of the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto. She received her PhD from University of California, Los Angeles in 2018. Her research interests are international migration, globalization, race/ethnicity, and nationalism. The question that guides all her research pursuits is how transnational, global forms of inequality intersect with local forms of boundary-work to affect immigrant groups, particularly those coming from Muslim-majority countries to the West. Visit her website tahseenshams.org for more information. She tweets @TahseenShams.
Review by Sangeeta Roy, 11th February 2021
Disrupting the dyad of foundational frameworks in migration studies that focus primarily on the contexts of the hostland (‘Here’) and homeland (‘There’), Shams (2020) emphasises the relevance of the socio-political dynamics of places ‘beyond’ (‘Elsewhere’) that are equally central to the construction of immigrant identities in the hostland. The ‘here’ refers to the hostland or the United States; ‘there’ refers to the homeland – Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, in this context; and ‘elsewhere’ to places primarily in the Middle East or Europe. ‘Elsewhere’ also extends to other sites that are or are perceived to be contexts of Islamist violence.
The book uses a multicentered relational framework to explicate the ways in which the association of immigrant South Asian Muslim Americans to Islamic ‘elsewheres’, is intertwined with their identification as subjects of Islamophobia in the United States. ‘Elsewhere’ constitutes places or contexts that are neither the origin or the destination of South Asian Muslim immigrants in the United States but determine their Islamic identity formation, as well as their identification with Islamic fundamentalism. This aligning of South Asian Muslims with Islamic ‘elsewheres’ even as they are affected by the global geopolitics of Islamophobia and its repercussions in the United States, is not a single, disparate process. Rather the conception of ‘elsewhere’ is intrinsic to that of Islam, that draws on Ummah or an imagined Muslim solidarity across nations, consolidating “a sense of community and collective identity” (Shams, 2020, p.6) based on shared Islamic tenets. This text brings to the fore the complex ways in which South Asian Muslim Americans negotiate their affiliation with Ummah, while resisting the Islamophobic sociopolitics in the United States that is informed by exogenous as well as internal shocks of ‘Islamic’ terrorism.
The conceptions of Islamic solidarity among South Asian Muslims that transcends national borders on the one hand, and that of Islamophobia in the United States on the other, may at first seem similar, in that both scripts can obfuscate relevant differences within an Islamic people and also construct a set of imagined derogatory ‘others’. In practice, however, these processes are located within distinct epistemic spaces.
Islamic solidarity that draws on Ummah operates as an epistemic priviledge in that it enables South Asian Muslim Americans to recognise the instances and processes of discrimination against Muslims in various parts of the world and in the United States, impacted by the construction of Islam as oppositional to western democratic values. Ummah also makes it possible for South Asian Muslims to find solidarity among co-religionists irrespective of their ethnic identities, in an environment of stringent surveillance by the government and derogatory representations of Muslims in the mainstream media. Entrenched Islamophobia in the United States on the other hand, obfuscates the history, context and other specificities of actions of Islamist violence in various locations in the world while constructing all individual followers of Islam as representatives of imminent terror. The exercise of surveillance by the machinery of the government in effect compels South Asian Muslims to re-contour and interrogate their public disposition and conform to a script of ‘good Muslims’ at the individual and organisational level.
Shams’ brings to the fore the pathos of the individual and collective experiences of the participants as they engage with questions of performance and performativity, to use the prism of Nagel’s work on the relations of race, ethnicity and sexuality and national boundaries. “Performances” or “presentations of the self” as well as “performatives” that constitute day to day enactments (Nagel, 2000, 111) are articulated by the participants that delineate the ways in which they exercise self-surveillance over their actions to thwart becoming subjects of scrutiny in the public space. South Asian Muslim immigrants perform their Islamic identity in a manner to present themselves as moderate ‘good muslims’. Some of these constitute avoiding political conversations related to Muslims and focussing on apolitical interactions; distancing from Muslim friends and neighbours who practice conservative clothing, Islamic practices and are articulate about their faith; avoiding particular mosques during Eid; and avoiding religious conversations on the phone (Shams, 2020, 107). These decisions are impacted by government machinery such as surveillances under US Patriot Act after 9/11 and a host of other initiatives by the government that target Muslims. Some of the interviews also indicate that South Asian Muslims subsume into the dominant discourse of an Islamic physiognomy, as one of the research participants emphasise her “ethnically ambiguous” appearance while identifying her brother and his friend as “muslim looking” because of their beard (2020, 106). Similar individual experiences abound in the text.
The Hijab and its connotative meanings surface several times across the text and bring to the fore questions around the perceptions and performances of femininity within Islam. In other instances the text notes the ways in which individuals manoeuvre circumstances in social settings over concerns of consumption of Halal food, alcohol and the offering of prayers, such that they do not draw attention to their Islamic identity. These accounts show the diverse perspectives of South Asian Muslims towards their religion and its practices thereby disrupting the dominant homogenised, stereotyped constructions of them in the United States.These perspectives operate in an environment of looming fear, and strategies to perform as ‘good muslims’ render South Asian Muslims politically passive (2020, 120). At the same time, organisations such as the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America)attempt to reinforce an American Muslim identity, voice and presence, by emphasising Islamic values that are in conformity with American culture and democratic values.
At its core this book emphasises the ways in which individuals at the intersection of two ethno religious identities and impacted by a set of ‘elsewheres’, understand and articulate the scripts of ‘belonging’. Questions of ‘belonging’ for immigrants in their host countries cannot be completed and resolved merely on acquiring a set of official documents and being designated as citizens. Rather, a set of non-official preconditions and scripts of socio cultural ‘belonging’ continue to contour the lives of South Asian Muslim immigrants in the United States. Shams delineates the history and socio political context of the countries in South Asia and the ways in which Muslim immigrants from these countries negotiate the scripts of ‘belonging’ in the United States. The perceptions of such ‘belonging’ for various South Asian Muslims are informed by their religiopolitical location in their home countries; the relationship between the homeland and the hostland; and the impact of geopolitics between the West and the Muslim world and its repercussions in the United States.
While this book uses Islam as an analytical lens, other stratifiers such as racial and ethnic identity, gender and homeland nationality operate in equally significant ways, impacting the experiences of South Asian Muslim Americans. The book also shows that religion is more often articulated and performed through gender and race and ethnicity. Drawing on Nagel ( 2000), it is possible to argue that the South Asian ethnic identity and Islam coalesce to inform the performatives of the immigrants as both identities elicit suspicion and subsequent scrutiny in the United States. While Shams explicates the compromises of South Asian Muslim immigrants across private and public spaces in the process of ‘belonging’, she also shows the ways in which many of them are equally rooted as citizens in their hostland. This claim to ‘belong’ to the United States, though on their own terms, brings forth the complexities of ‘belonging’.
Shams’ conception of ‘elsewhere’ contributes to sociological thinking and analysis not only in the context of immigrant Muslim identity construction in the United States but also in re-imagining the ways in which larger social, cultural and political processes impact the experiences of internal migrants, immigrants and minorities in general. Her contribution in drawing attention to the theoretical conception of ‘elsewhere’ can make it possible to reconceptualise research on migrations. Central to the method of the book is also the way in which Shams writes herself into it, given her own standpoint location as a South Asian Muslim immigrant in the United States. The use of a relational ethnographic method brings forth the minutiae of the mundane in the experiences of South Asian immigrants as they struggle with their ethno religious identities in the United States. The book shows how the repercussions of geopolitical processes are experienced in the ‘everyday’, emphasising the need for a phenomenological focus in studies on international migration.
Nagel, J. (2000). Ethnicity and Sexuality Annual Review of Sociology, 26 , 107-133.
Sangeeta Roy received her PhD in Gender Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, India in 2020. Sangeeta’s research engages with the ways in which migrant ethnic identities are articulated through constructions of gender and sexuality in the context of schooling experiences of adolescents of Bihari ethnic lineage in Kolkata, India.